The History of the Christmas Carol: How the festive season sound took the world by storm

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes 

Depending on how you feel about Christmas music, it can either be the most wonderful time of the year, or the worst, because nothing gets stuck in your head like Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Christmas carols, but there are a handful that have a special place in my heart, like, ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ and, ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’. Though these are common Christmas songs that most people are familiar with, the origins of Christmas carols go back thousands of years.

The word ‘carol’ is assumably derived from the Greek world charos which means a ‘circle dance’. The word itself has a variety of definitions, depending on where you look. The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) describes the carol as a song with a religious impulse that is simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. It goes on to say that the typical carol conveys people’s emotions in a language that can be easily understood and is music that can be shared by all.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes 

Depending on how you feel about Christmas music, it can either be the most wonderful time of the year, or the worst, because nothing gets stuck in your head like Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Christmas carols, but there are a handful that have a special place in my heart, like, ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ and, ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’. Though these are common Christmas songs that most people are familiar with, the origins of Christmas carols go back thousands of years.

The word ‘carol’ is assumably derived from the Greek world charos which means a ‘circle dance’. The word itself has a variety of definitions, depending on where you look. The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) describes the carol as a song with a religious impulse that is simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. It goes on to say that the typical carol conveys people’s emotions in a language that can be easily understood and is music that can be shared by all.

The definition given by Studwell (1985) describes the carol as a song used to celebrate Christmas and the following events, i.e., New Years’, Advent, and, to a certain point, the winter season. He also says that the most important characteristic of the carol is its long-term and widespread appeal and that it is meant to be heard, played, and sung year after year, by a variety of people.

Trying to find evidence of the first carol is an impossible task. However, historians maintain that the Greeks and Romans dedicated odes or hymns to their gods and noble individuals, especially during the Olympic games where songs were sung to honour the victors. Because of the nature of music as we know it, it is fair to assume that Christian hymns were adapted from these pagan cultures. However, music is of such a polymorphous nature that its development has fed from all sorts of origins.

According to Edwards (1963), the earliest authentic record we have of a Christmas carol is from A.D. 129 Rome, called the ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’, known also as ‘The Angel’s Hymnor ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’. Bishop of Rome Telesphorus decreed: “In the Holy Night of Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall celebrate public church services and in them shall solemnly sing ‘The Angel’s Hymn’.” It wasn’t until another 800 years had passed, in A.D. 957, that December 25 was established as Christmas Day.

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Though these are the origins of the music, the tradition of going from house to house singing songs is said to have originated with Saint Francis of Assisi, who, in 1223, was the first caroller. He was also the first person to include a crib or creche in his nativity scene, which was put up in the middle of the town square and was larger than life. It was around the nativity scene that he sang and danced with his followers, singing praises to the Lord with the joy of his faith. This form of worship spread quickly and was performed with enthusiasm.

Folk and secular carols have existed separately from the church throughout history, but it is difficult to find records of them. Because of this, historians do not know when dance carols first appeared, though there was some evidence in 15th-century England. The interesting thing was that though they were popular with the common people, and some had religious content, the music was never allowed in American or English church services until at least the late 19th century. The exclusion of this music was partly because the church did not appreciate the lively tones of the songs and because the music never originated from the church in the first place. Folk music was labelled pagan and sinful, and, in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was frowned upon by the Protestant Church who sought to purify the Church of England from Roman Catholic practices. The Church banned all celebrations surrounding Christmas, including carols, in what was known as the Puritan suppression.

Despite this, carols flourished elsewhere on the continent. At the end of the Puritan suppression, a collection of Swedish carols was translated into English and sung throughout England. Christmas carols were still a bigpart of court and peasant life which carried on into the middle of the 19th century. Secular music was used during feasts and celebrations, and household musicians and travelling minstrels would often perform at castles in exchange for food or a few farthings (Edwards, 1963). Singing processions were common and performers were expected to sing for their supper. During Christmas, minstrels would sing about the Yule log, wassail bowl, holly, mistletoe, and other symbols relating to Christmas.

Franz Gruber, Austrian composer of Silent Night

One of the most popular Christmas carols, ‘Silent Night’, was composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber. He was an organist for his church in the little village of Oberndorf, Austria. One Christmas Eve, he was dismayed to find that his organ was out of order and not able to be fixed in time for the Christmas morning service. He asked the pastor of his church, Joseph Mohr, to write a few verses, which Gruber then set to music, thinking a new hymn might make up for his lack of instrument. The next morning, he sang alongside a soprano with a guitar accompaniment, and thus the first performance of ‘Silent Night’ was sung that Christmas morning. Little did he know how popular that song would soon become!

As time went on, Christmas music became a blend between secular and sacred music. Studwell (1998) describes Christmas carols as a mass phenomenon in the sense that they are tied to Christmas and celebrated worldwide, often regardless of religion or belief. This has led to Christmas songs being created and enjoyed outside of the Christian religion. The vast majority of carols are anonymous or from folk sources, although it is true that some of our most popular and oldest Christmas carols are religious songs like ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. Studwell (1998) says that some Christmas carols come from Jewish origin, such as ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’. This carol was composed in 1840 and comes from German master Felix Mendelssohn (whose grandfather was Jewish) and Irving Berlin, who was Jewish as well, and wrote the popular song ‘White Christmas’ for the movie Holiday Inn (1942).

Depending on where in the world you are, Christmas carols are enjoyed in completely different ways. In the west, there is an oversaturation of Christmas music. In a seasonal market worth $177 million dollars a year, it is no surprise that a lot of top musicians have made an attempt at cashing in with their own Christmas hits and albums.

According to the 2007 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, sung by Bing Crosby, was not only the best-selling Christmas/holiday single in the U.S. but was the best-selling single of all time – and still holds this title years later. The single has estimated sales of more than 100 million U.S. dollars with over 50 million copies being sold worldwide. There have been 500-plus recorded versions of the song in several different languages and by many different artists who have all had chart-topping success with it. Just on that fact alone, it has also earned the title of the most recorded Christmas song.

This is only one song of many that has made an impact on the world. No matter where you go, every country has their own versions of Christmas carols. In Germany, there is the song ‘Leise Rieselt der Schnee’, or ‘Softly Falls the Snow’ in English. This famous German song was originally a poem by Eduard Ebel from 1895 that tells the story of Christkind’s arrival.

In France, one of the most iconic songs is ‘Petit Papa Noël’ (‘Little Father Christmas’). Recorded in 1946 by Tino Rossi, the song is about a young child worrying about Santa getting cold, but still wanting his presents. This is a famous French Christmas carol that has been sung by a number of professional singers and is also commonly sung by children in schools.

While Christmas is still a new, novelty holiday in China, they do have a Christmas carol titled ‘Xuěrén Bùjiànle’ (‘The Snowman Disappeared’). Many Chinese Christmas carols are new and non-Christian, so this cute little carol tells, instead, the story of the snowman melting in the snow.

While I myself am a little bit of a grinch when it comes to Christmas carols and Christmas music, it is hard to deny that they are hands down the most enjoyed genre of holiday music around the world. Studwell (1998) says that in Western society, carols are the most culturally dominant and enduring songs and, funnily enough, Christmas is the only holiday that inspires such songs – I certainly do not see artists making music about Halloween or Easter. For nearly two or three months each year you’ll hear plenty on the radio that are enjoyed locally and internationally, and artists just keep ‘em coming!

 

Photo: Tim Stringer, Pixabay

Sources: 1. The Origins of Christmas Music. Music Journal 2. The Christmas Carol as a cultural phenomenon. Music Reference Services Quarterly

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